'Wuthering Heights' Summary

Wuthering Heights is a story of love, hate, social status, and revenge set in the moorlands of Northern England at the end of the 18th century. The novel follows the repercussions of the ill-fated love between the impetuous, strong-willed protagonists Catherine “Cathy” Earnshaw and Heathcliff. The story is narrated in diary-like entries by Lockwood, a tenant of one of Heathcliff’s estates. Lockwood annotates and gathers the story told to him by Nelly Dean, the housekeeper, and also records his present-day interactions to create the frame of the story. The events taking place in Wuthering Heights span a 40-year period.

Chapters 1-3

Lockwood is a wealthy young man from the South of England who, in 1801, rents Thrushcross Grange in Yorkshire in order to recover his health. A visit to Heathcliff, his landlord who lives in a farmhouse called Wuthering Heights, makes Lockwood notice the peculiarity of that household. Heathcliff is a gentleman but is uncouth, the mistress of the house is reserved and in her mid-teens, and the third person, Hareton, is sullen and illiterate. Lockwood first mistakes Catherine for Heathcliff’s wife and then for Hareton’s wife, which offends his hosts. A snowstorm erupts during his visit and forces him to stay the night, which irritates the residents of Wuthering Heights.

A housekeeper mercifully accommodates Lockwood in a small bedchamber, where he finds the name Catherine Earnshaw carved on the bed. The guest also finds one of Catherine's diaries, where she laments being abused by her older brother and writes of her escapes to the moors with her playmate, Heathcliff. Once Lockwood nods off, he is plagued by nightmares, which involve a visitation from a ghost named Catherine Linton, who gets hold of his arm and begs to be let in. Lockwood's agitation rouses Heathcliff, who orders him to leave for having slept in his dead beloved’s chamber. The unwelcomed houseguest then witnesses Heathcliff’s display of anguish and desperation, as he begs for the ghost to enter the property. The following morning, Heathcliff resumes his brutish manners, to which Catherine willfully reacts. Lockwood leaves, feeling disgust towards that odd household.

On his way back, he catches a cold, and, while he is bedridden, he asks Nelly Dean to tell him the story of Wuthering Heights and how it turned out the way it did. A servant at Wuthering Heights since she was little, Nelly grew up with the Earnshaw children, Catherine and Hindley. Her story begins with the arrival of Heathcliff, when Hindley was 14 and Catherine was 6 years old. An ethnically ambiguous child whom Cathy's and Hindley’s father picked up in Liverpool, Heathcliff was at first greeted with horror by the household but soon becomes Cathy’s ally and Hindley’s enemy. After his father’s death, Hindley takes over Wuthering Heights, cutting Heathcliff’s education and forcing him to work as a farmhand, and abusing Cathy in a similar way. This situation only strengthens the bond between the two children.

On a Sunday, the pair escapes to the nearby pristine Thrushcross Grange, the home of the Lintons, and witness the children, Edgar and Isabella Linton, in the throes of a tantrum. Before they can leave, they are attacked by the guard dogs and they get caught. Cathy is recognized by the family, promptly aided and taken in, while Heathcliff is deemed “unfit for a decent house” and thrown out. Cathy would spend five weeks there. When she returns to Wuthering Heights, she is covered in furs and silks. 

Chapters 4-9

After Hindley’s wife dies while giving birth to a son, Hareton, Hindley gets consumed by grief, and resorts to heavy drinking and gambling. As a consequence, his mistreatment of Heathcliff escalates. Meanwhile, Cathy begins leading a double life, being reckless at home and prim and proper with the Lintons.

One afternoon, during a visit from Edgar, Cathy takes her rage out on Hareton, and, when Edgar intervenes, she boxes his ear. Somehow, in their fight, they end up declaring their love, and they get engaged. That evening, Cathy tells Nelly that, while she has accepted Linton’s proposal, she feels uneasy.

In what would become one of the most famous speeches in literature, she reminisces about a dream in which she was in heaven, yet felt so miserable that the angels flung her back to earth. She likens marrying Linton to the misery she felt in her dream, as, while in “heaven,” she would mourn Heathcliff. She then explains how the love she feels for Linton is different from the one she feels for Heathcliff: the former is ephemeral, and the latter is eternal, passionate, and among two equals, to the point that she feels that her soul and Heathcliff’s are the same. Nelly, while listening, notices that Heathcliff has overheard the conversation, but has left because he was stung by Cathy’s admission that it would be degrading for her to marry destitute Heathcliff—and he did not hear Cathy’s declaration of love.

Heathcliff departs Wuthering Heights. During his three years of absence, the Linton parents die, Cathy weds Edgar, and the pair move to Thrushcross Grange, bringing Nelly with them. 

Chapter 10-17

Nelly interrupts her story and Lockwood is left in a fretful state. Four weeks pass before Lockwood makes Nelly continue with her story. The first year of Cathy’s marriage is a happy one, with Edgar and Isabella indulging all her wishes. Heathcliff’s return, however, shatters that idyll.

Heathcliff returns an educated, well dressed man. Cathy is overjoyed by his return, but the usually polite Edgar barely tolerates it. Heathcliff moves in with Hindley, who has lost to him in a game of cards and wants to reclaim his debts. Meanwhile, Edgar’s sister, Isabella, develops a crush on Heathcliff and she confides it to Cathy, who advises her against pursuing Heathcliff. Heathcliff, in turn, is not smitten by her, but acknowledges that Isabella would be Edgar’s heir, were he to die without a son.

When Heathcliff and Isabella are caught embracing in the garden, Cathy is called and an argument ensues. Heathcliff accuses her of treating him “infernally.” Edgar tries to throw Heathcliff out of the house, but, when he has to leave to find reinforcements, Heathcliff manages to escape through a window. Cathy is angry at both men and declares that she shall hurt them through self-destruction. Her tirade sends Edgar cowering, and she locks herself in her room and starves herself. Three days later, Nelly is allowed to enter her room and finds her delirious. When she opens the windows to call for Heathcliff, Edgar enters. Meanwhile, Heathcliff and Isabella elope.

Two months later, Cathy is nursed back to health and is expecting a child. Heathcliff and Isabella have moved back to Wuthering Heights, whose conditions and inhabitants (beastly Hareton, drunkard Hindley, and Joseph) horrify Isabella. In a letter to Nelly, she describes the destitution of the place and complains about Heathcliff’s abusive behavior. Nelly then decides to pay a visit to them, and finds Isabella quite destitute. Nelly also notices that she has become as cruel as her husband. Heathcliff asks Nelly to help him see Cathy. 

Heathcliff and Cathy finally reunite when Edgar is away for mass. Heathcliff sees her as both a beautiful, haunting vision and as a shadow of her former self. As the two embrace, a reunion that is both recrimination and forgiveness ensues. Acknowledging that she would die soon, Cathy says she hopes he will suffer as he made her suffer, while he asks her why she had despised him and betrayed him. Then, Edgar walks in on them. Cathy, mad with grief and emotionally overwhelmed, faints, and Edgar promptly tends to her. That evening, she gives birth to a daughter and dies in childbirth.

While the house is in mourning, Nelly witnesses an angry and unrepentant Heathcliff wishing for Cathy not to rest in peace while he lives. Nelly also meets Isabella, who has run to Thrushcross Grange from Wuthering Heights coatless through a snowstorm. She is giddy because she has finally managed to escape her abusive household. Heathcliff had thrown a knife at her because she had told him that he was the reason Cathy had died.

Nelly eventually learns that Isabella settled in London, where she gave birth to a sickly child named Linton. Shortly after, Hindley died, leaving Hareton in Heathcliff’s dependency. 

Chapter 18-20

Catherine Linton, Cathy’s daughter, is now 13, and she has been raised by Nelly and Edgar, a grief-stricken yet loving father. She has both her mother’s spirit and her father’s tenderness. Catherine lives a sheltered life, unaware of the existence of Wuthering Heights, until one day her father is summoned to his sister Isabella’s deathbed. Catherine rides to the Heights against Nelly’s orders, and is found happily drinking tea with the housekeeper and Hareton, now a bashful 18-year-old. Nelly forces her to leave.

When Isabella dies, Edgar returns with the sickly Linton, Isabella and Heathcliff’s child, and Catherine dotes on him. However, when Heathcliff demands his son, Edgar has to comply. Linton is taken to Heathcliff, who promises to pamper him. As a consequence, he grows into a spoiled and selfish person.

Chapter 21-26

Catherine and Nelly meet Heathcliff and Hareton on a walk on the heath, and Heathcliff cajoles Catherine into visiting the Heights. There, she finds her cousin Linton, now a languid teenager, and Hareton has grown to be even hoarser than he used to be, and he is snubbed by Catherine and mocked by Linton. Heathcliff proudly remarks that he has reduced Hindley's son into what his abuser had made of him years before.

Upon learning that Catherine went to Wuthering Heights, Edgar forbids further visits. As a consequence, Catherine begins a secret correspondence with her cousin, and they send each other love letters. Upon a random meeting with Heathcliff, he accuses Catherine of breaking his son’s heart and learns that Linton is dying. This prompts her to pay him a secret visit with Nelly, where he exaggerates his symptoms in order to force Catherine to pamper him. During their ride back, Nelly catches a violent cold. While Nelly is bedridden, Catherine visits Linton almost every day. Nelly discovers this and tells Edgar, who, again, puts an end to them. However, since Edgar’s own health is deteriorating, he agrees for the cousins to meet. Linton is in very poor health during this meeting, barely able to walk.

Chapter 27-30

The following week, Edgar’s health is deteriorating to the point that Catherine visits Linton unwillingly. Heathcliff appears and Linton falls limp. Catherine has to help Heathcliff escort him to the house, with Nelly following along, scolding them. When they arrive at the Heights, Heathcliff kidnaps Catherine and, when she resists him, he slaps her. She and Nelly are forced to stay the night.

The following morning, he takes Catherine away, while Nelly remains locked up. When she is set free, she learns that Heathcliff forced Catherine to marry Linton, and when she runs to find help, she finds Edgar on his deathbed. When Catherine manages to escape that evening, she gets home in time to say goodbye to her father. After Edgar’s funeral, Heathcliff takes Catherine back in order for her to nurse Linton.

Heathcliff also tells Nelly about his necrophiliac tendencies. After Edgar’s burial, he digs up and opens Cathy’s coffin; he has been haunted by her presence since the night of her funeral. Her beauty is still intact, and that eases his tortured nerves.

Catherine’s new life at the Heights appears to be miserable. She has to take care of Linton until he dies, and she becomes embittered and hostile, rarely leaving her room. In the kitchen, she abuses the housekeeper and rebukes Hareton’s displays of kindness. This is where Nelly’s narration catches up with the present, as Lockwood himself witnesses the dysfunctional dynamics of the household.

Chapter 31-34

Lockwood has recovered his health and wants to return to London. He visits the Heights once more, where he meets a sullen Catherine, who mourns her old life and mocks Hareton’s attempts at reading. He develops a liking towards her, but his meeting is cut short by Heathcliff.

Eight months later, Lockwood is in the area again and decides to spend the night at Thrushcross Grange. He finds out that Nelly has moved to the Heights and decides to pay a visit to her. Subsequently, he learns that Heathcliff died and that Catherine is now engaged to Hareton, whom she is teaching how to read. While regretting not making a move first, he hears the end of the story from Nelly: Shortly after Lockwood’s departure, Catherine and Hareton had reached a detente and developed a mutual likeness for one another, while Heathcliff’s mental health had started deteriorating more and more. He had grown increasingly distant, and regularly forgot to eat and sleep. He was routinely transfixed in a reverie, and while he spent the nights wandering in the heath, he spent his days locked inside Cathy’s bedroom. Following a night of wild storms, Nelly entered the room and found the windows wide open. After closing them, she found Heathcliff’s dead body.

Heathcliff is buried next to Catherine, but the two souls are not at rest. Instead, there are rumors and reports of two wandering ghosts traipsing around the moorland.